What Is Qualitative Market Research? Why Do We Need It?

Monday, 5 December 22, 12:10

Qualitative market research, qualitative research, or qual research is a primary market research method that collects and analyzes non-numerical data and uses observation methods, as well as unstructured questioning techniques to provide actionable insights to researchers.

Qualitative market research goes beyond surface-level metrics and statistics to answer questions like “how do customers feel about various brands and why.” Such nuanced information helps grasp consumer sentiment and provide a better customer experience overall.

Qualitative market research, qualitative research, or qual research is a primary market research method that collects and analyzes non-numerical data and uses observation methods, as well as unstructured questioning techniques to provide actionable insights to researchers.

Qualitative market research goes beyond surface-level metrics and statistics to answer questions like “how do customers feel about various brands and why.” Such nuanced information helps grasp consumer sentiment and provide a better customer experience overall.

Research shows that “unstructured content accounts for 90% of all digital information (online content)”. Accordingly, researchers use qualitative data analysis methods to evaluate and create themes in otherwise immeasurable data.

Furthermore, presenting qualitative data analysis findings in an understandable and usable way ensures that a business puts the research to good use.

In recent times, increasing customer touch points and channels, contemporary purchasing processes and influences, rapid technology adoption, and more factors have created new opportunities and pushed the boundaries in qualitative market research.

Qualitative market research is indispensable for making insight-driven decisions because a qualitative method helps you adopt a more refined approach to your consumers’ preferences and needs. For example, you can optimize the design of your website or the copy of your email newsletter or change the packaging of your product.

Want to learn why we need qualitative market research and how it can help? Read on.

What is Qualitative Market Research?

Qualitative market research has its roots in academia and the social sciences and uses less structured research methods to help us understand human psychology in depth and learn more about how people think, act, and feel.

The history of qualitative research goes back to 1920 with the development of survey instruments by social scientists, Emory Bogardus and Walter Thurstone. Later, Columbian University faculty, Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld, used focus group interviews to study propaganda impact during World War II.

In Qualitative Marketing Research (Understanding Consumer Behaviour), the renowned professor and marketing research practitioner, Dominika Maison, states that “In qualitative research, we are moving away from the “question and answer” type interview towards contextual research. Such qualitative research is not limited to questions about consumption but is concerned with an in-depth understanding of the consumer by getting to know the various areas of their life.”

Here are the different stages of qualitative research:

  • Define the research problem and research questions.
  • Build research schemata/discussion guide and design the research planning (define the choice of the moderator, location, number of interviews, number of respondents, selection criteria, etc.)
  • Set up the interviews (recruitment, preparation of the interview guide and research materials).
  • Conduct the interviews.
  • Analyze data and interpret the results.
  • Prepare/write a report.

Why Do We Need Qualitative Market Research?

Qualitative research provides comprehensive and open-ended learnings about perceptions for an informed decision-making process.

Such research focuses on acquiring an in-depth understanding rather than measuring opinions and aims to explore perceptions without leading research participants to a black or white decision.

Qualitative research is a must if you need definitive answers to questions like the ones below:

  • What do customers or prospects think and feel about a product or service?
  • How do customers choose between different products or brands?
  • How likely would customers recommend a clothing store, hotel, restaurant and so on to a friend, family member, or colleague?
  • How do branding, design, packaging, and price affect customer decision-making?
  • What marketing messages impact customers most, and what messages turn them off?

Customer opinions of brands, products, or services help you target your marketing efforts precisely. Moreover, qualitative data ensures consistency and personalization of the customer journey—from discovering to purchasing a product.

A small business, too, can benefit greatly from qualitative research as it is less expensive to carry out than quantitative market research and gives the ability to explore multiple topics in detail. In addition, it is easy to analyze recorded or transcribed responses at a convenient time.

Nothing works like a qualitative investigation If you want to get inside your customers’ minds and learn more about their underlying feelings, needs, and motivations.

While a quantitative study reaches out to a larger audience for critical inference, the goal of qualitative research is to map out the nuanced experience(s) of an individual or a small group of individuals using face-to-face interviews, focus groups, and other qualitative research methods.

Often, a paired approach to research combines statistically significant findings (quantitative data) and individual consumer feedback (qualitative data) to provide the richest insights to researchers.

Let us see how these two research methods compare to each other.

Qualitative Research Vs. Quantitative Research

The “why” and “how” of qualitative methods hold as much significance as the “what,” “who,” and “when” of quantitative marketing research. Such consumer research is vital to SMBs and large businesses alike wanting to research an audience or a market and leverage consumer behavior insights.

Apart from the major differences between qualitative and quantitative research, it is worthwhile to explore how the two research methods are distinct from each other.

Quantitative research

Qualitative market research collects and analyzes non-numerical information through close observation, focus groups, interviews, and more.

Conversely, quantitative market research uses mathematical analysis and collects data through multiple-choice questionnaires, polling methods, online and paper surveys, web analytics tools like Google Analytics (GA), etc.

Mathematically based quantitative research provides valid statistical findings to make business-related predictions unlike qualitative research wherein smaller sample sizes are not ideal for predicting future performance.

Quantitative research answers short-answer questions, such as:

  • How many people are interested in buying a product or service?
  • What are the buying habits of your customers?
  • How long are visitors staying on a website?
  • Which page on a website are customers exiting from?

Generally, questionnaires and surveys capture primary research quantitative data. While close-ended questions generate insights (such as agreement or disapproval to test a hypothesis), the pool of research participants is large enough to ensure the required audience representation.

Quantitative data must be organized, analyzed, and communicated to key decision-makers (such as business owners, board members, marketing directors, and R&D leaders) for it to be considered reliable business intelligence.

However, many businesses do not have the expertise, resources, or technology to do quantitative research in-house. In such a situation, it would be prudent to choose a market research company offering custom research services.

Qualitative research

A qualitative study works well in understanding your existing and potential customers better. Qualitative research is more about people than numbers and helps you unravel customer emotion and motivation and reveal aspects like why customers like or dislike a brand or a particular marketing message, etc.

Experienced moderators are integral to handling qualitative research methodologies for optimal outcomes. Unlike quantitative research, the respondent pool is smaller and demands adjustments to avoid bias. Otherwise, the researchers would end up with a lot of raw information but only a few pertinent insights.

Direct questions do not always elicit truthful responses from participants. Therefore, indirect questions play a key role in qualitative market research.

Qualitative research answers long-answer questions, such as:

  • Why do you think this product is better than a competitor’s? If not, why do you think so?
  • How easily navigable and friendly is this website design?
  • What do you think of this new company logo?
  • How can you improve a new service to make it more appealing and useful?

A bias toward certain strategies and tactics may yield less-than-optimal or misleading outcomes. Therefore, market researchers often consider a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods for actionable insights to avoid undermining market research efforts and investments.

An integrated approach involving qualitative and quantitative research methods is used depending on the budget, scope, and timeframe of a market research project and the unique needs of business decision-making.

If you are planning a qualitative, quantitative, or an integrated market research project, get in touch with us.

Types of Qualitative Market Research Methods

Do you need help with assessing the viability of a product in a target market? Do you want to know the characteristics, locations, needs, points of view, and buying/spending habits of your target customers?

If yes, then you should take a look at some of the widely used qualitative research methods (listed alphabetically):

Action research

Also known as “action learning,” “collaborative inquiry,” “emancipatory research,” and “participatory research,” action research involves “learning by doing.” It is believed that the famous social scientist Kurt Lewin invented the term “action research,” which consists of a researcher as an active participant in the situation under study, such as business restructuring and redundancy.


Biometrics is a lesser-known method of qualitative market research that shows:

  • How people respond to content, CTAs (call-to-action), experiences, layouts, promotions, or tasks.
  • How people surf the web, react in a specific situation, use a site and so on.
  • What factors drive people to take action on a site?

Research based on biometrics is expensive and is being used by larger digital-first companies, which want to perform UX testing for various purposes like improving the customer journey or a website layout.

In 2020, biometric technology adoption in market research was at an all-time high. In the coming years, increasing availability and decreasing cost of adoption will likely make biometric technology more accessible to a wider range of organizations.

Case-based research/Case study research

A case study typically follows a structured approach that involves analyzing contextual factors relevant to a specific problem and exploring the solution and impact/outcome in detail.

A case study is frequently used as a marketing tool to showcase the impact of a service or solution on a target market or new product/service developments. It may take one month to a year to develop case studies, which often include content based on focus groups or interviews.

Community forums

An online forum or web message board is fast and easy to set up, with organizations typically inviting 10-30 participants and forums remaining open for 1-5 days. As users’ names can be anonymized in an online forum, it serves as a safe space to conduct group research and gather opinions on creative concepts, new features, promotions, or other topics of interest.

A researcher moderates the forum to ensure that discussions stay focused and the right questions are asked to explore a topic in detail. Once initial responses are given, the researcher may divide people into subgroups to explore different points of view.


Ethnographic market research (EMR) is an expensive type of qualitative research, which relies on participant observation (in person or remote) as people interact with or use products in their own environment. This research is generally used during the initial-stage development of a user-centric design project.

Ethnographic research is widely adopted in service design, usability, and user-focused fields. It takes place at home, office, store, or online/another location of interest over a few hours, months, or even years. Experienced ethnographic researchers design and conduct the study with consumers worldwide.

For example, ethnographic observations are beneficial in the formative research stage of social marketing. Building improvements or new features in products or services is easier with a deeper understanding acquired through ethnographic research.

Focus group/focus group interview (FGI)

A focus group generally consists of a small group of participants (8-10) led by a moderator who facilitates a structured discussion to get in-depth feedback and uncover patterns and insights into attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, reasons, and reactions. Focus group discussions usually take place at research facilities with conference/meeting rooms.

A savvy moderator engages in a lively focus group discussion, keeps the discussion moving to extract valuable information from the participants, observes body language and the non-verbal cues given unintentionally, and also manages problem participants.

Additionally, online focus groups allow for a greater reach and are more cost-efficient than in-person/face-to-face focus groups. For instance, many interesting insights are available by fostering a social media conversation and observing the dialogues between people interested in the topic.

Grounded theory

Researchers use interviews, surveys, and other qualitative research methods in combination with secondary market research methods to collect responses from participant groups with a larger sample size (20-60).

After collating responses, specialist coding techniques are used to formulate a grounded theory that explores the reasoning behind the target audience's behaviors. Grounded theory research provides explanations that can guide design decisions or accelerate product/service innovation.

Individual in-depth interviews

Also known as an “IDI,” an in-depth interview is a one-on-one interview conducted face to face, over the phone, or on an online chat platform. Such interviews tend to have a few prepared questions along with follow-up questions to gain insights into consumer or stakeholder profiles.

Like IDIs, telephone depth interviews (TDIs) follow the same pattern but involve one-on-one discussions between a moderator and a respondent over the phone instead of in person. TDIs are quite helpful in building rich customer understanding and improving customer satisfaction in both B2B and B2C settings.

Market research surveys

Availability, ease of use, and low cost are the primary reasons for the widespread use of market research surveys. For instance, open-ended surveys work well to understand how people feel about a topic or product, explore UX or the viability of new features, or understand the target audience in greater detail.

Online sentence or paragraph completion

Online sentence completion is a projective technique that allows participants to express their feelings and opinions by responding freely to ambiguous stimuli.

This qualitative research method enables a researcher to include qualitative data in a structured form wherein respondents receive a survey with unfinished sentences and are asked to complete them using the first word or phrase that comes to mind.

Paragraph completion is a variation of sentence completion and requires the respondent to complete a paragraph beginning with the stimulus phrase.

Participant diaries

Diary or journal logging is a simple note-taking exercise that records the feelings and thoughts of people over a period of time. Well-known diary/journal formats include digital diaries, paper journals, and voice journals.

Generally, key parameters and prompts are provided to help people record and time their entries and also know how often or how much they should write in accordance with the research goal(s).

Online diaries and journals are great tools for learning more about attitudes, behavioral shifts, changes in perception, customer journeys, habits, motivations, usage scenarios, and more.

Structured observations

Real-time observations on camera or from a distance allow a market researcher to see how a customer reacts to in-store arrangements, displays, and products and analyze purchase experience and shopping behavior.

Additionally, structured observations put an end to guesswork with eye-opening experiences of observing participants’ interactions and reactions to the things they see at a store.

Other significant qualitative research methods include bulletin boards, in-home videos, lifestyle immersion, phenomenological study, and thematic analysis.

Advantages of Qualitative Market Research

The following are the main advantages of qualitative market research:

Collect detailed information: Qualitative research allows for natural and informative interactions with consumers while providing flexibility in questioning and using open-ended questions for transparency from respondents.

Generate ideas for product development and marketing: Various qualitative market research strategies can generate ideas for developing and marketing products and communicating brand propositions effectively.

Furthermore, focus group suggestions and marketing copy based on the average customer’s tone and voice captured through interviews make all the difference in ideation.

Adapt research to specific requirements: Qualitative research flexibility allows researchers to adapt their strategies for optimal results.

For instance, researchers can switch from a collective focus group setting to a discussion setting or a one-on-one interview of each participant to reduce discussion splits, increase the influence of moderation, and eliminate the skewing variable.

Reduce customer churn: A qualitative investigation reveals what customers desire in a product/service. Understanding whether a brand is meeting customers’ needs and wants can help guide a brand’s customer support, marketing, and product development in the right direction to retain existing customers and reduce customer churn.

Challenges of Qualitative Market Research

Qualitative research presents certain challenges and limitations to brands and market researchers, including:

Bias: A qualitative research practitioner needs to be vigilant and aware of various sources of bias that could skew the results in a qualitative market research setting.

For example, one or more participants in a focus group may alter others’ opinions or the researchers’ questions may unconsciously influence participants’ responses.

Cost and time: Qualitative research is not ideal for quick, actionable insights because it may take days, weeks, months, or even years to arrange, conduct, and analyze the results of interviews, focus groups, or observations.

The time-consuming nature of research can lead to a higher cost and, in some cases, become a detrimental factor due to market evolution.

Confidentiality and feasibility: Some qualitative research studies may require shipping products for in-home use. However, it may lead to a feasibility issue in shipping expensive or too large products to participants. Moreover, concerns about confidentiality are possible in terms of people other than the participants trying classified products.

Small sample sizes: In qualitative research, sample sizes are typically small as the primary objective is identifying the issues (perspective-based research) instead of measuring their frequency (not statistically representative).

As small sample sizes may raise the question of data accuracy regarding the views of the entire target audience, researchers can work with two or three separate focus groups to allow for the representation of diverse opinions.

Other drawbacks include relying on a researcher’s experience and difficulty in replicating findings (making copies of data) due to individual perspectives.

Qualitative Market Research Applications

Companies use qualitative market research for various applications, such as:

  • Conduct product concept and features testing
  • Develop awareness of industry-specific trends and individual experiences about using a product or service
  • Discover new channels
  • Establish thought leadership
  • Evaluate promotional materials (online and offline)
  • Explore brand perceptions
  • Generate ideas for advertising campaigns
  • Identify consumer needs
  • Refine product messaging
  • Understand customer and competitor behaviors

For example, before going into production with a new line or expanding a product line, it is beneficial to conduct customer research to answer questions like:

  • Is the product easy to use?
  • Does the design look appealing?
  • Are the packaging and pricing right?
  • How does the product compare to competing products?

In addition, qualitative research can help resolve any critical issues prior to a new product launch.

Qualitative Market Research Examples

Qualitative research is indispensable for businesses of all types and sizes. Let us look at some examples/use cases.

Household goods manufacturer

A household goods manufacturer seeks insights into household appliance use and potential product development. After recruiting and observing customers for in-home ethnographic studies, the company found out that some customers suffering from dust allergies cleaned excessively.

The finding helps the manufacturer develop a vacuum cleaner with a dust sensor and light indicator to illuminate a clean surface.

Laundry detergent company

A laundry detergent company plans to revamp its packaging, including the company logo. The company conducts a 90-minute, moderator-enabled online focus group discussion via video chat to have participants evaluate various design concepts and discuss the pros and cons of each concept.

With questions focusing on simplifying the product’s usability through a change in packaging, the emotional appeal of a new logo and other factors, the company gathers the opinions of potential customers and narrows down its design choices.

Restaurant menu

A restaurant owner wants to introduce a new menu. Before doing so, the owner invites local residents to give feedback on the food, pricing, and service. Conducting qualitative research increases the chances of success for the new menu and ensures that it meets the requirements of the restaurant’s customers (target audience).

Blackridge Research & Consulting – Your Go-to Market Research Company

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We will assess your project brief/research needs and tailor the data analysis methods to the research questions and the ultimate research objective(s) to help you translate precious insights into informed decision-making for your business.

Our market research experts have worked on several projects and can propel your business forward with data-driven strategies. Are you ready to shape the future of your business? Contact us today!

Wrapping Up

In this era of individual marketing, businesses invest a lot of time, money, and resources to earn “client loyalty.” A recommendation rating from “not at all likely” to “extremely likely” can make a world of difference to businesses of any type and size.

Therefore, it is essential to leverage a comprehensive qualitative data analysis to gain detailed insights into the target audience instead of relying on generic or outdated assumptions and establish a long-term relationship with customers.

Getting clear results is possible with a planned approach to qualitative market research. Market research professionals are qualified to interview people, moderate group discussions, and evaluate body language and verbal and non-verbal responses.

Furthermore, marketing professionals and researchers use a variety of research tools and digital intelligence platforms to make the most of qualitative research.

In-depth feedback obtained from qualitative research is especially invaluable when developing new products or planning new marketing initiatives. Qualitative research would work well for you if you want to tap into your customers’ behaviors, desires, expectations, and opinions.

If you want to gain a strong advantage in the marketplace, investing in qualitative market research can help uncover fresh, impactful insights, improve customer service, and increase revenue in a highly competitive marketplace.